Advancing Gender Equality: What I Learned from the 55th Commission on the Status of Women
In late February, I attended the 55th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. The purpose of CSW is to create a forum where leaders and activists in the gender equality field can brainstorm on how to formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and advancement of women worldwide. My impressions from the event were, (1) cooperation from government is essential to the advancement of gender equality; (2) that cooperation has increased over the years; and (3) there are viable non-government solutions that are essential regardless of the level of government cooperation. It seems that the fight for gender equality has become “workable”; in other words, there seems to be a light at the end of what has been a long, long tunnel.
The State Department’s response on March 18, 2011 to recommendations made at the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the US appropriately reflects exactly where we are in the struggle for gender equality. In response to Norway’s recommendation that the US “remov[e] blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid covering medical care given women and girls who are raped and impregnated in situations of armed conflict”, the US responded that it could not remove the blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid because of “currently applicable restrictions.” On the one hand, there’s hope because the response implies that we have a government amiable to the idea of change. On the other hand, there are restrictions requiring removal or begging for a work-around solution. GJC believes this is “a subtle but clear milestone in our global campaign to ensure victims of rape in conflict receive full medical care, including abortions.” You can read the GJC’s press release and full legal update here.
One of the events I attended at CSW on February 22nd called Making Countries Accountable on Gender Equity and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights emphasized the importance of government accountability as a way of achieving gender equality. The Foundation for Studies and Research on Women (FEIM) and Strategies from the South (SOUTH) organized a panel of experts and representatives from UN agencies and several civil society organizations to highlight their experiences and lessons learned about holding governments accountable for gender equity and women´s sexual and reproductive health and rights. The panel speakers were in unison that they want a way to track what help is being offered at the country and level and a way of measuring how useful that help is to the problems of gender equity and women´s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
One solution is to have real-time information gathering drive solutions and government assistance. For example, this year, the General Assembly launched UN Women (formerly Unifem), an organization which aims to raise $500 million in program funds to help meet its goals of eliminating discrimination against women and girls; empowering women and achieving equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security. An important initial goal for UN Women will be to access the needs and gaps in programs worldwide and then, to ensure that government expenditure is meeting those needs by monitoring those programs. The underlying idea is that learning from progress and pitfalls needs to be a strategy built into the operations of UN Women and its program affiliates. In this way, holding the government (and its expenditure) accountable will be a way to measure whether its assistance is actually effective.
While it is clear that there has been a steady increase of effort from the government to address gender inequalities and to prevent violence against women as a way of preventing HIV and AIDS, according to UNFPA, women still account for nearly half the 33 million people living with HIV worldwide. The fact that the epidemic is still at staggeringly high levels is a sobering reality; but the panel’s message is that it is not one that is insurmountable. One pitfall is the information disconnect between governments and country women. As a panel speaker from the Asia Pacific for Law and Development (APWLD) articulated, women do not always know the status of the law within their country; in many countries, there is non-existence of legal mechanisms, discriminatory laws are still in place or States lack the will to implement existing law that may be favorable to gender equality. One possible solution is to promote information sharing and access through grassroots organizations. Kakamega District Home-Based Care Alliance in Africa is one grassroots women-led effort working to improve AIDS governance at the local level. In addition to providing essential support to vulnerable community members impacted by the epidemic, the Alliance unites caregivers and draws recognition to grassroots work, most often done on a voluntary basis.
Another way of addressing the problems of reproductive health is by providing medical practitioners information and guidance on how to treat women during times of crisis. On February 28th, I attended another CSW event hosted by the Women’s Refugee Commission to launch the 2010 Inter-Agency Field Manual on Reproductive Health in Humanitarian Settingsin New York. The field manual is an update of its 1999 version and has become an authoritative guidance on reproductive health interventions in humanitarian settings. Encouragingly, the latest report includes an entire section on comprehensive abortion care, a section that was not included in the last version. However, the report restricts the provision of abortion services to raped girls and women to circumstances where abortion is legal under local law. GJC reported in its 2011 brief, The Right to an Abortion for Girls and Women Raped in Armed Conflict, that this deference to local abortion laws is inaccurate because in situations of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and norms of customary international humanitarian law take precedence over national laws. Nonetheless, the field manual is undoubtedly a necessary practical tool. Some medical practitioners have no or little medical training and having a reliable resource will be invaluable in times of emergencies.
The solution to some challenges in promoting gender equality and advancement of women worldwide is partly financial. World-wide circulation of the field manual and developing it as an online, living document will take time and resources, both of which require money. The first panel discussion emphasized the importance of communication and accountability as a way of achieving gender equality and global reproductive health. The fact that UN Women has a $500 million dollar campaign goal doesn’t make one hopeful for immediate change. The way forward is not entirely reliant on financial support for grassroots activity, but it does seem like it offers the most immediate solution while governmental organizations continue to evolve their internal legal process for addressing the problem. Predictably, diversifying our efforts across many potential avenues for change continues to be the most effective way of advancing the solution.
April 25, 2011
 Panel Speakers included: Purnima Mane (United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA); Nazneen Damji (UNIFEM – part of UN Women); Alexandra Garita (International Women’s Health Coalition- IWHC); Ebony Johnson (International Community of Women – ICW); Mikiko Otani (The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development – APWLD); and Shannon Hayes (Huairou Commission). The Panel was moderated by Mabel Bianco, President of FEIM.
The audience was welcomed by moderator Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Humanitarian Response Branch Chief, UNFPA and Ambassador Gary Quinlan, Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations; Ambassador Hasan Kleib, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the United Nations and Ms. Purnima Mane, Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund. The rest of the speakers present were Sandra Krause, Reproductive Health Program Director, Women’s Refugee Commission; Dr. Grace Kodindo, Assistant Professor, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University and Ms. Ashley Wolfington, Reproductive Health Specialist, International Rescue Committee.